What’s the beef with old cows?

I’m in love with beef from old cows. It has this intense beefiness (like you’re eating beef stock). If mature beef could speak, the noise would be deafening.

Old Cows

There’s a perception that the best beef comes from young cows, not old cows. This perception is so ingrained in the United States that the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture, which grades beef) will not give beef a prime grading (the top grading) unless it is from cows under 30 months of age. 

Meat from younger cows has been considered superior to meat from older cows because it is perceived to be healthier and more likely to be tender. Until a couple of years ago, I held the same view. The idea of an old cow would bring images of a chewy and stringy steak from a decrepit cow. It wasn’t until I tried beef from a more mature cow that I realised what I was missing out on.

The gateway steak

My gateway steak to what is now an overall preference toward mature beef was  an outstanding Txuleton (Rib) steak from the Rubio Gallega cow (more details on this breed below). The beef isn’t exactly melt in the mouth tender, but the taste was fantastic. Every bite of this steak delivered a punch of intense beef flavour. It was heaven and I needed more.

Why do old cows taste so good?

As the cow ages both the muscle and fat mature which increase the taste of beefiness. In his book, STEAK: one man’s search for the World’s best steak, the author Mark Schatzker, explains that as cattle get older they develop more Myoglobin (a protein that stores oxygen) in their muscles resulting in redder and more flavourful meat. Other factors are the diet of the cow (grass/pasture fed) and the way the steak is cooked (with the traditional method to cook the meat at 800 degress in a Josper oven).

Taste is taste, so it’s mature cows aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Kang L blogged about his visit to Bar Nestor, a temple to mature Basque Beef in San Sebastian, but preferred the ‘tenderness’ and ‘sweetness’ of USDA beef. I prefer my beef to taste like beef rather than butter, so if you prefer steak that packs a punch then try Basque beef. 

No Country for Old Cows

The Basque Country, an autonomous region in North Eastern Spain is famous for quality cuisine (the Basque area has more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else in the word) as well as outstanding  beef from old cows.

The beef from the Basque area, including the Txuleton/Chuleton cut (a rib steak), is from former dairy cows that are finished (fattened up for slaughter) in the Basque area or, ideally, from the Galician Blond (Rubia Gallega) cow breed.

An image of a Rubio Gallega cow
Its name is Rubio Gallega

The Rubio Gallega breed

The Rubia Gallega is a breed raised to be turned into delicious steak and eaten. This breed is from Northern Western Spain often raised near the border between Spain and Portugal.  They can be as old as 18 years (but usually 8-14 years) before they graduate into delicious steaks. This is a significant cultural difference compared to USDA beef where the cow has barely reached its first birthday. Even British beef is usually slaughtered before the cow reaches 2 1/2 years.

An image of Txuleton Steak at Casa Urola
Txuleton Steak at Casa Urola

Where do I find beef from old cows?

If you want to eat Basque Beef the best place to go the city of San Sebastian. You can read about our tour of San Sebastian’s best steak houses.

If you’re looking to enjoy Txuleton from mature cows without international travel you can find it at Beast in MaryleboneSagardi in Shoreditch, Donostia near Hyde Park or Lurra next door to Donostia. If you want to cook and eat Txuleton from the comforts of home then you can find Turner and George near Angel. 

A picture of the beach at San Sebastian
San Sebastian – The food is even better than the scenery.

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